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How Ram Jethmalani led the fight for people’s right to information

Indian Express 2019-09-09 01:31:13

Ram Jethmalani will be remembered for his fight for the people’s right to information.

will be remembered for his fight for the people’s right to information.

When the NDA government under took over in March 1998, Jethmalani was given charge of the Ministry of Urban Development. At the time, a debate was on regarding the enactment of the transparency law. Jethmalani, however, did not wait for the government and on October 17, 1998, his ministry issued an order allowing inspection of documents by citizens.

The government felt uncomfortable and then Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar wrote to the ministry, asking it not to implement the order and saying that the process for the Freedom of Information Bill was already on.

Later, Jethmalani was shifted to the Ministry of Law.

But the unimplemented order gave a new momentum to activists. Prashant Bhushan’s Centre for Public Interest Litigation and Common Cause, founded by the late H D Shourie, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking that the Cabinet Secretary’s restraint on Jethmalani’s order be declared “violative of the citizens’ right to information”.

The Freedom of Information Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha on July 25, 2000. It was, thereafter, referred to the Standing Committee on Home Affairs which presented its report a year later. Jethmalani was later removed as Union minister but he continued his fight for the transparency law by consistently questioning the government in Parliament on the status of the Bill and the delay in its passage.

The Freedom of Information Bill was passed by Lok Sabha on December 3, 2002 and by Rajya Sabha on December 16, 2002.

After the Bill got the assent of President A P J Abdul Kalam, Jethmalani asked on July 30, 2003, “What are the reasons that this Bill has not been notified in Gazette of India?” But since the rules were not framed, it was not notified for implementation and in 2004, NDA lost the election and the Vajpayee government lost power.

After the government took over, Jethmalani asked again when the information legislation is likely to come into force. When the RTI Bill 2004 was referred to Parliamentary Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, Jethmalani was its member.

Within a year of the implementation of the legislation, there was a buzz that the UPA government was thinking of amending the RTI Act. Jethmalani, on August 24, 2006, asked, “Whether it is a fact that Government has taken a decision to amend the Right to Information Act, 2005; if so, the details of the amendments and reasons for bringing the same”.

Amid the criticism of RTI Act from leaders of various political parties, Jethmalani had once said, “Any interference with the Right to Information which has been incorporated in the Constitution of India is going to be serious fraud on Indian democracy.” And when former PM Manmohan Singh raised his concerns on “frivolous” RTI applications, Jethmalani said, “PM Manmohan Singh seems to think he has made a gift to people, which he can revoke at will.”